A look in the archives at Macalester quickly reveals a history of protest at the college. This photo shows students blocking Grand Avenue, March 4, 1970.

By Talia Bank ’23

“I have a better idea of how to make the most impact and I’ve learned a lot about my own standpoints and morals.”
—Ally Mueller ’26

Protest has long been a powerful tool of advocating for change, but how can protesting achieve concrete results? One class at Macalester is examining that question by exploring what makes protest effective and in what ways activists can apply those best practices. “Protest Hacking: How the New Science of Social Movements Can Empower Activists,” a political science course taught by Professor Lisa Mueller, seeks to connect academic findings on the effectiveness of protest to the lived experience, efforts, and goals of protesters. 

Mueller developed the course after observing how the study of activism is often removed from its actual practice. As a scholar of social movements, political economy and development, and empirical research methods, Mueller felt a responsibility to help bridge the gap between theory and action. Inspired by a tradition of student activism at Macalester, she wanted to teach a course that would empower students to effect change and provide activists with tools to do the same.

“On my office door, there’s a Time Magazine cover with a protester in the background holding a sign that says, ‘People power not ivory tower’. I walk into my office every day and I’m just like, ‘I am the ivory tower; this is unacceptable,’ especially at Macalester, a very politically engaged campus,” Mueller says. “There can be a disconnect between ivory tower lessons and people power and I want to finally take responsibility for connecting them.”

Mueller is currently writing a book geared toward a general audience that will highlight effective ways to engage in protesting and social movements. She envisions the book as a guide for activists as well as those who are interested in activism.

“I’m contributing intellectual knowledge that does not substitute for experiential knowledge, so I want to have this reciprocal conversation and bridge the ivory tower to the people power,” Mueller says. “I designed this class as an incubator for the book, but also as a class that I hoped would attract activist students and activist-curious students.”

For students like Ally Mueller ’26 (Champlin, Minn.), the course does serve to inform their activism and provide a foundation for effective participation in social movements. 

“I’ve done some activism in high school, but I’ve never been super active in it. I thought the class would help me get into activism more and learn how to do it better,” Ally Mueller says. “It’s a lot more philosophical than I expected. We’re not just talking about protest strategies, but also the ethics of using them. I feel like I have a better idea of how to make the most impact and I’ve learned a lot about my own standpoints and morals.”

For those interested in the empirical underpinnings of effective protest, the course also offers a comprehensive look at the latest research.

“I’m very interested in empirical research in social sciences and how we can quantify social issues and behaviors. That’s something that you get a lot of in this class,” says Ellie Spangler ’26 (St. Louis). “It’s also interesting to see the type of work that scholars are doing to determine what’s actionable and effective in political protests. The subject is very nuanced because efficacy in activism looks different to everyone.”

In line with the course’s purpose of bridging the study and practice of activism, the semester will culminate in creating a collaborative website highlighting cutting-edge lessons on effective protest. The result of a partnership with Macalester’s Digital Liberal Arts [DLA] initiative, the website will include a feedback mechanism for users to comment—and perhaps spark dialogue between academia and activism.

“I think the website is a really cool idea to help bridge activists and scholars,” says Ally Mueller. “There’s so many people in the class who are both.”

May 22 2023

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